Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh, Country Joe & the Fish Drummer, Dead at 81

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Country Joe and the Fish in 1967. Hirsh is second from right (Photo: Jim Marshall, courtesy of Vanguard Records)

Gary “Chicken” Hirsh, who played drums with the Berkeley, California-based Country Joe and the Fish between 1967-69, died Aug. 17, 2021, according to a Facebook tribute page in his honor. The post did not cite a cause of death, but stated that Hirsh died in Ashland, Ore., where he lived for many years. He was 81.

Hirsh played on the first four albums by the band: Electric Music for the Mind and Body (1967), I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die (1967), Together (1968) and Here We Are Again (1969). He also appeared on the group’s 1977 Reunion LP and Live! Fillmore West 1969.

Hirsh was born in Chicago on March 9, 1940, and according to the Facebook tribute page, “He earned his nickname at the age of 7, when his father remarked that he was a ‘chicken’ for not going down a slide.”

Country Joe and the Fish (Photo courtesy of Vanguard Records)

The page offers the following biographical details: “Though most of his fans remember him as an icon of the 1960s hippie counterculture, Gary preferred to identify as an original beatnik. By the time he moved to California in 1957, he had found his artistic muse, playing drums in North Beach, painting and writing angry poetry, all while living with his parents in the suburbs of San Jose. In 1961, he moved to Berkeley to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts. He was proud of his expulsion from the school in his third year, having critiqued the questions of his art history final, thereby insulting his professor. This refusal to conform, and the drive to unapologetically share his unique vision of the world, informed his art, both his painting and his music.

“In 1967, Gary joined the psychedelic rock group Country Joe and the Fish. [Editor’s note: Other sources put the date at December 1966.] Fans and history buffs point to the counter-culture influences and political commentary in songs like ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag’ that made the group both important and influential. Gary took credit for the ‘banana peels will get you high’ craze of the late ’60s, and the profane adjustment to the Fish cheer. His drumsticks are on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

According to Hirsh’s Wikipedia page, he left the Fish in 1969 and opened an art supply shop in Oakland, Calif. He also played drums with the duo Blackburn and Snow, the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band and the group Touchstone. He also reunited for some time with Country Joe McDonald.

Related: 10 classic 1967 debut albums by California bands

A recent photo of Hirsh from his Facebook tribute page

The Facebook bio continues: “After his marriage to Terry Rhorer in 1975, Gary devoted himself to raising their children and they later moved to Ashland, Oregon. He worked as the manager of the Tudor Guild Gift Shop at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before turning his craft to Ashland Graphics, a t-shirt screen printing shop. He began drumming again, this time with local jazz musicians. He continued to paint, taking inspiration from the masters while also developing his own singular painting technique. He did this in his music as well, channeling the influence of those who came before while adding his own flavor.”

Watch Country Joe and the Fish perform “Section 43” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

Related: Musicians we’ve lost in 2021

Jeff Tamarkin

3 Comments so far

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  1. John
    #1 John 24 August, 2021, 00:06

    Met him once in Chicago in 2004 w/the band (minus Barry). Great skill, great image; must have been a wonderful man, God Bless!

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  2. Da Mick
    #2 Da Mick 24 August, 2021, 09:36

    The song: “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die” was the worst thing that happened to Country Joe And The Fish, as they became known pretty much solely for it, and were henceforth considered somewhat of a “joke” band. As you can see from the clip from Monterey, their music actually created some interesting and beautiful soundscapes. At that time they were, essentially, doing very much what the Grateful Dead were doing, though their tabletop organ was much more prevalent in their music and sound. If you enjoy psychedelia, I can heartily recommend the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die” LP or CD, as well as any of their other records. They were a great band who was generally misunderstood and largely unappreciated outside California.

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  3. zally
    #3 zally 5 October, 2021, 09:34

    i just learned of his passing. his drumming was a highlight of the first 2 fish lps. sadly after the 2nd lp things fell apart.his use if the tom toms was very unique. seemed like a GOOD kat.

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